School cuts could reveal needed reforms

Simultaneous efforts in the Legislature to reform public school teacher pay and evaluation systems and to balance revenue with expenditures in the coming two years could work together to show us what ought to be done.

The immediate effect of state budget problems is to cause many school districts, including South Kitsap School District, to reduce the number of teachers on their payrolls.

Perhaps layoffs can be avoided if normal attrition brings the numbers into line with available dollars, or if supplemental pay contracts are changed to cut expenditures and make it possible to fill more teaching positions.

But under the current system the state’s budget problems will certainly require personnel changes in many school districts.

If the central administration in each affected school district were willing and able to explain the effects of reductions — including those achieved by attrition — the public might learn something that can be used in assessing reform proposals.

Reforms that affect performance evaluations, pay, and job security may come out of the Legislature in the near future, and they will have little chance of survival, much less success, without the public’s support.

If it is possible to see how the current system works in reverse, that is, during reductions, maybe some lessons can be learned that apply going forward when there is more money to spend.

Linking layoffs to performance evaluations rather than solely to seniority may be a worthwhile reform, and its value could be assessed if we knew how attrition and layoffs have worked in combination.

While departures through retirements, resignations, or simply transfers to another district may make the total number of teachers match the available dollars, how does the resulting faculty match the needed expertise?

Perhaps giving the central administration more authority to fill positions based on expertise rather than seniority could provide a better match to the needs of the students in the classrooms.

But if we don’t know how well the current system allows administrators to fill specific personnel needs, we cannot know whether linking reductions to something other than seniority could solve a real problem.

The teacher pay system already has an apparent weakness that can affect the ability to recruit and retain teachers who have the needed expertise.

Instead of a pay system that provides greater compensation to teachers in fields like mathematics or science, we have a system that ignores any need to pay more to compete in the market for their services.

Our colleges of education turn out many more graduates than are hired as teachers each year, but not in all the areas in which people can earn more doing something other than teaching.

It surely would not be good to have a personnel system ruled by seniority that adds to the problem by treating expertise as less important than longevity.

Assuming the administrators have — or can develop — the ability to determine which teachers are more effective then reforms that get and keep the better teachers may be supported by the public in spite of whatever anyone says in opposition.

Evaluating teaching effectiveness could be the hardest problem to solve.

One might expect that evaluating teacher effectiveness would have been figured out long ago, but it doesn’t seem to be so.

Rather than performance evaluations, longevity and postgraduate degrees have greater influence on compensation — and therefore on recruiting and retention.

Longevity in the classroom obviously has some influence on effectiveness, since experience is the only way to learn some things.

Experience reportedly doesn’t add much after the first few years, yet our pay system rewards longevity as though it continues to increase effectiveness after this initial period.

Postgraduate degrees also are said to add little to teaching effectiveness in fields other than mathematics, science, and special education.

It seems that valid evaluations of teaching effectiveness cannot be replaced by reliance on longevity or postgraduate degrees.

Can our administrators show that they have the ability to identify the better teachers, or even the worst?

Bob Meadows is  Port Orchard resident.

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